It was only when the people’s poet died that I realised that almost everything I had done, and everything I hoped to be, was because of him. His death came some decades after his suicide attempt by laxative pills on BBC Two in 1984.
While for many of the post-war generations, pop music was the noise that made you question your parents’ values and pogo yourself out of conformity, for me that catalyst was comedy. My hero was a wild-eyed loner at the gates of oblivion – albeit one who would eventually have a number one hit record with Cliff Richard.
That hero was Rik Mayall, my introduction to alternative comedy, closely followed by Alexei Sayle. I first saw Rik on the sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties. He was a confused, absurd, lunatic Ronnie Corbett with a midlands accent and a phlegmy snort laugh delivering a monologue that universally failed to ever go anywhere near the topic. He was utterly mesmerising and quickly became the latest playground impression, thankfully taking over from Frank Spencer.
He was many things, but I think it was the stare that did it. He had an ability to stare straight down the camera that created a sense of connection and threat, combined with an intensity of delivery that grasped you by the collar and never let go.
To see that Rik Mayall was in the TV listings made the pulse quicken, it would be the most exciting moment of the week. Alternative comedy has been defined as many things – its core was that it was non-sexist and non-racist, and that the performers were the authors of their own material – but I now realise that its most vital element was its energy. Anyone who doesn’t think that alternative comedy was needed should take a look at a 70s TV variety show like Summertime Seaside Special or Sunday Night at the Palladium. Jesus Christ, the agony of it.
So much of the era’s comedy seemed to be detached from any sense of vitality and incredibly out of date. By the time punk exploded, the end-of-pier MCs were coming up with their first jokes about hippies and free love. It all seemed so complacent, an act of surrender with some griping about “the ladies” and then a sickly song at the end.
Rik Mayall harnessed an idiotic rage, a vital exasperation. First, in his poet character, Rik, whose anxiety at performing meant he was perpetually infuriated by the existence of an audience while trying to deliver poems expressing his love for Vanessa Redgrave. His double act with Adrian Edmondson had a similar undercurrent of violence just waiting to happen, mixed with utter absurdity.
Alternative comedy introduced me to many ideas in culture and politics. At times, my Oxfam jacket lapel was as laden with political slogan badges as Rik’s were on The Young Ones. Though Rik was the doorway to that world, his work was not political; it just sort of led to protest.
For me, stand up is a great vehicle for talking about something – though much of Rik’s work was rabid absurdity. If I find myself riding a high horse on stage, I remember that I have to make sure I bask in the absurdity of it all, too. I was on tour when Rik died and each night it was even more at the forefront of my mind that I had to explode on stage, to glow with manic intensity, however big or small the audience was.
I learned a lot from Rik Mayall and the world he introduced me to. But the most important lesson was to shun complacency – and burn as brightly as you can.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill